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Defying the heteronormative idea of success—and asking what a business that "defiantly refuses to play by the rules" could be—with Kate Tyson
"The terrible truth," writes John C. Maxwell, "is that all roads to achievement lead through the land of failure." Maxwell's Failing Forward made failure a desired mile marker on the path to glorious success. The book was published in 2000, and since then, failure has been having a moment.
That's a very long moment.
The whole ethos of Silicon Valley hinges on “failing fast.” Venture capitalists knowingly build portfolios full of companies that won’t ever recoup their investment. And how many TEDx talks are there on the power of resilience in the face of defeat?
Of course, when we talk about failure, we’re not really talking about failure.
We’re talking about winning. About success. We’re talking about that step on the hero’s journey in which it seems everything is lost—just before the hero achieves ultimate success.
This is not the kind of failure we’re talking about today, though.
Today, we’re talking about a kind of failure that really is an end in and of itself. This kind of failure recognizes that, at least in the material world, all things have a beginning, middle, and end.
Today, we're talking about queer failure. Or, perhaps more precisely, we're talking about queering failure.
Maxwell's Failing Forward popularized a normative model of failure. We learned to perceive failure as desirable, in that it was a signal that success, conventionally defined, was right around the corner. We learned to see ourselves as people who persevered and, in doing so, became winners.
The winner-loser binary that underpins the pop notion of failing is, in a way, heteronormative. That means that we perceive a certain "rightness" in the either/or construction. Someone is either male or female—that's heteronormative gender. Straight or gay—heteronormative sexuality.
Either you're a winner or a loser—that's a heteronormative idea of success.
In an explainer on queer theory, critical management studies scholar Nancy Harding explains that we grow up in heteronormative cultures, where the rules of gender and other identities are already set. We learn to uphold those rules and join the dominant group. Or, we resist those rules and get labeled "strange, subordinate, inferior, ‘queer’."
"Crucially," writes Harding, "the dominant requires the despised subordinate in order to know itself as dominant." "Queer makes straight," she says.
For our purposes here, we might say that losers make winners. Or that the only way a "winner" can know they are truly a winner is to perceive that others are losers.
And since nobody wants to be a loser, any failure we experience must be a sign that we're actually winners. In this way, the embrace of failure doesn't disrupt our ideas of success or achievement—it reinforces them. It's no surprise then that Maxwell's book came out in 2000—at arguably the peak of neoliberalism's power. In the neoliberal order, the winner-loser distinction became stark. Middle-class life was no longer a stable existence. Either you propelled yourself into an elite group of college-educated knowledge workers, or you found yourself downwardly mobile.
Today, neoliberalism is losing its power—according to some historians and economists anyway—but the winner-loser binary has never been more sharply defined.
But what if we aren't all either winners or losers?
What if those terms don't mean anything at all in the context of our identities, our lives, our work?
What if ventures and projects can come and go without ever the question of success or failure being asked?
Today’s essay is actually by professional rabble-rouser and business whisperer—although you might remember her as Kate Strathmann—who writes .
Earlier this year, Kate published a zine. Yes, like a glorious 90s zine—back before the internet and on-demand production gave self-publishing a makeover.
[Im]possible Business is all about imagining the ways that business can be conceived of outside the purpose of wealth-building or individual livelihood.
I asked Kate if she'd be willing to read one of the pieces from [Im]possible Business for the podcast. And she chose “Queer Failure.”
Keep reading, or listen to this essay on What Works—wherever you listen to podcasts.
This piece is perfect for our current moment—one in which many people are questioning work and business, and wondering how it is that "success" feels so utterly out of our grasp. And further wondering if "success" can even be justified in the 21st century.
I’ll be back on Monday with a new “This is Not Advice” column for paid subscribers and then again on Thursday with your regularly scheduled essay for everyone!
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by | excerpted from [Im]possible Business
We tend to think of businesses as enterprises that need to last, sustain, grow, and grow some more. If you view a business as an asset—an entity that can grow and sustain value, with a primary purpose of building wealth—then it’s impossible to square temporality or failure as positive possibilities. But if, as I’ve been exploring, the purpose and logic are defiantly not about the creation of a wealth-building asset, then can we reorient around a more temporal, experimental, and ultimately failure-oriented model of business?
By failure-oriented, I mean businesses that are around while they make sense.
While they bring joy. While they create community. While they serve their (non-capitalist) purpose. And then, when they no longer serve a joyful purpose, turn into compost to feed something new.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam explores ways of being that exist beyond “cynical resignation on the one hand and sunny optimism on the other,” and ultimately show pathways for living life as otherwise:
Failure, of course, goes hand-in-hand with capitalism. A market economy must have winners and losers, gamblers and risk-takers, con men and dupes…
Halberstam helps us think about businesses that are not legible as “businesses,” or at least as businesses that work or make sense. In this way, a business that doesn’t work, far from being a loser business, exists by “refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique.”
For those who are sick of Hustle Culture, Halberstam entreats: “If success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”
To be clear, I’m not writing of failure in the John C Maxwell or Lean Startup sense; obviously, the mantra to fail early and often still points toward ultimately winning and succeeding. Fail a little bit, in a not terribly consequential way, that ultimately helps you win might be a better way of putting it.
I mean failure in the sense of businesses that defy logic, that build no long-term assets, that subversively refuse to play by the rules of winning.
“The best gay grocery store in East Montpelier”
Fox Market opened in 2021 outside of Montpelier, Vermont. Half market/half gay bar selling all sorts of specialty foods, magnificent cheeses, and one of the best wine selections in 100 miles. And it’s resolutely, visibly, unapologetically queer.
For all the normalcy of the products—like, it’s a nice wine and cheese shop—there’s penis art on the walls. Customers can pick up a gay kink zine alongside their morning scone. The bathroom sign communicates that more than a threesome would be a body too far. My girlfriend and I met some friends there one night for drag karaoke. Because we live in rural Vermont, we knew half the people. It’s hard to describe the feeling of comfort and home when inhabiting a thoroughly queer space in a rural area, IYKYN. The karaoke was terrible in the way most karaoke is terrible, there was a strange child dressed as Wednesday Adams who muttered “Monster Mash” alongside an adult dressed as Spider-Man. We cheered everyone while ringing up a ridiculous tab on bottle after bottle of under-priced natural wine.
The wine might seem too cheap—not that I’m complaining—but of course, I can never turn off the consultant part of my brain that is always running a “how does this even work” financial ticker tape in the background of my daily life. Sometimes the glasses, an eclectic mix of jars and thrift store crystal, aren’t quite washed as much as one might wish they were.
It’s not that these quirks spell certain failure in the “this business is doomed” sense.
I ascribe the occasionally foggy glasses to two owners that never seem to leave a business that is open from morning till late and still operating in its first year or so. My more fastidious girlfriend claims a more calculated stance on cleanliness that maps to a particular queer aesthetic.
But restaurant alcohol markups are notoriously high. That’s how these businesses try to offset otherwise dodgy margins. And Fox Market is not marketing up their bottles the way other wine shops do. They also cultivate a sense of deep care for community and their workers: tips are distributed to local causes, and workers are paid so that they don’t need to rely on tips for income.
So, I mean failure as in defying normative business.
Failure in embracing the campy, odd, silly, childlike, and messy rather than acquiescing to the seriousness of business as usual. As in, it might not last forever because some of the choices defy business logic, because these choices are designed to privilege community above asset-building.
“Let it die.”
In the initial months of the pandemic shut down Tunde Wey, a multi-hyphenate who “uses food to talk about important shit,” published an essay via Instagram. The essay’s thesis was that the restaurant industry was a system so beyond repair that, rather than save it as far more famous public figures were arguing, the best outcome of the pandemic-wrought crisis was, in fact, to let the entire industry crumble.
In Wey’s essay, he writes of post-Katrina New Orleans, where the storm damage kept many restaurants closed for years, and also the bounce back a decade later, including a resurgence of tourism, restaurants, and a confirmation that “everything equilibrates back to inequality in the United States,” as black workers in the restaurant industry largely remained in low-wage jobs.
Wey writes that federal aid to restaurants only serves to reinforce the existing system:
Without additional intervention, it seems many restaurants will die. But what exactly will die?
An industry where labor is segregated by race and gender, underpaid and uninsured. An industry fed largely by a hyper-commercial agricultural system that either extracts profits from the environment with little consequences or offers ethically sourced produce to just a few for a lot.
Let it die.
An industry where on the higher end is great food at fat prices in spaces that drive up real estate values, pushing property prices higher and poorer people further. And on the lower scale, working poor people, making barely enough to keep them going, serve low-nutrition meals to other working poor people who can’t afford quality housing because of predatory development that supports new restaurants.
Let it die.
Wey asks us to consider that, if what makes the restaurant industry “work” is something inherently toxic and exploitative, inviting failure and uncertainty might be exactly what we need to weave something different. Fox Market could hike up their win margins and, in the process, alienate and exclude the very community it opened to serve and be a part of, to celebrate, and even to expand.
If we only ever choose failure in the Maxwell sense, in an effort to ultimately win… then what game are we really playing? Can we be more interested in the “other rewards” that failure at business as usual might offer?
“Success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation.”
— Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure
I was speaking with my friend Jeff about the art of queer failure over dinner recently.
And he reminded me about the Minneapolis queer art space Madame, run by a collective for a brief couple of years as a community art space/club/den of frequent drag performances, and experiment in collective governance. I only went once or twice, as it opened after I moved away.
In remembering Madame, and other queer havens we’ve frequented over the years, we started talking about the importance of myth-making to these spaces. There are always stories: that time so-and-so’s boyfriend made out with someone in the bathroom. The time that one queen stole the door cash from the drag show. The legendary pizza wrestling party.1 Jeff and I spoke about “myth-making, not minutes,” and the idea that for Madame to adopt more organizationally legible and professional norms (symbolized by Jeff and me as meeting minutes), it would risk losing something of its messy queer spirit, as well as the purpose of the space.
Formalization might have invited hierarchy or made the space legible to more normative culture, and ultimately to commodification.
I can’t write of temporary queer spaces without weaving in the anarchist concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone: “a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.”
A TAZ is a small pocket of revolution and change, designed to melt away before being noticed or subsumed by the powers that be. In a similar way, failure as a business practice opens space for rebellion, possibility, and experimentation while ensuring interventions are not commodified as Capitalist success.
“Losers leave no records,” writes Halberstam, “while winners cannot stop talking about it:”
…and so the record of failure is “a hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism.” This hidden history of pessimism, a history moreover that lies quietly behind every story of success, can be told in a number of different ways; …I tell it here as a tale of anticapitalist, queer struggle. I tell it also as a narrative about anticolonial struggle, the refusal of legibility, and an art of unbecoming. This is a story of art without markets, drama without a script, narrative without progress. The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing, it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.
But of course, businesses have their limits as world-changing projects. Even a business trying to exist outside of capital's logic still has to make payroll.
“Utopias have always entailed disappointments and failures.”
— Saidiya Hartman
On the Limits of What a Business Can Be & Do
Étaín was an “underthings” store in Portland, Maine that offered an inclusive mix of femme-forward lingerie, non-binary undergarments and binders, and other forms of under-apparel. They created the most gorgeous and inclusive photoshoots I’ve ever seen. They Innovated Q.U.A.D.—the Queer Underwear Accessibility Department, a community-funded program distributing free gender-affirming undergarments.
There was a space of a few years where I found myself visiting friends in Maine every summer, which always included a trip to Étaín and a cocktail at its queer sibling, one of my favorite cocktail bars, The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, next door.2
In 2020, Étaín’s owner, Mack, after dedicating more time to activist endeavors during the pandemic, closed the business.
They posted a manifesto-like letter on their website with the announcement:
Amidst this month’s-long tidal wave of monumental human action, the news I’m here to deliver feels easy: Étaín will close permanently by the end of September. Why? Because I’m mad as hell. Our city and our society consistently prioritize business and property over the safety and dignity of our most vulnerable community members—people who know what they need and are continually gaslit, patronized, and ignored—and I’m tired of straddling the line between business owner and activist. I opened the shop with a set of values that have evolved and shifted over the years, but the past few months have confirmed that the shop cannot survive with these values intact. And that is absolutely fine. Because guess what? It’s just a business. We need so much more than that right now—we have always needed so much more.
I’ve read this letter many times, and I often think about all that I have not and do not have time and energy for because of my business.
I half “burned” Wanderwell down in early 2022: re-homing two-thirds of our clients (nearly $200k a year in committed recurring revenue), which resulted in both managing a smaller team and fewer clients and then much more space and better mental health for myself. After choosing to fail at scale, I have never felt so liberated in over a decade of business!
One of the benefits of running a tinier business is that I’ve been able to once again find my way back to presence: with friendship, with community, with meaningful activism, and with my beloved partner. I currently find deep, meaningful, satisfying work within the container of Wanderwell. And, I’m not sure if I’ll do it forever.
Failure invites us to consider that our attention and what we choose to devote ourselves to can change (should change!).
Failure can be a quiet refusal of dominance we have no wish to take part in. Failure revels in the finite, in the emergent idea that we do indeed live in a cyclical universe.
Consider that to get somewhere else and imagine and change systems, inevitably, we must side with failure. Experiments that only succeed are not experiments at all, they are acts of domination.
Who has the agency for imagination and the economic and energetic space to engage creatively with new economics? Often those of us who have failed at reaching those “specific forms of reproductive maturity” to which Halberstam alludes.
One of the tricky things about even looking at businesses as spaces for imagining a different future is that we inhabit a dual existence in doing so: we must support and sustain ourselves and our families, while at the same time pushing for a radical, abundant, and equitable future. There’s tension in that split existence. When do you make a choice that is about your own survival and livelihood, and when do you make a choice that is about the abundant future? We will, perhaps inevitably, come to junctures where these two selves are irreconcilable.
“Not having money is a fucking problem, and that’s why people need to work.
But having money is not a solution, especially when you don’t have enough.”
These irreconcilable paths are where we meet the limits of what an individual business can see or do.
The impossible choices and compromises that we will face point to the necessity of building economic and financial infrastructure, the plumbing of the abundant economies we envision. Failure as a thought experiment is one thing; failure as an actual circumstance that leads to consequences such as losing basic rights and needs like housing and healthcare, in a society that does not provide them, is another. Part of building the plumbing and the infrastructure is to create the circumstances where a failure need not be so dire: our precarity is largely a result of the lack of care we take with each other as a society.
When I facilitated two cohorts of business owners exploring radical business practices and thinking, I was struck by the limits of the answers to the question of what these owners would do with an abundant surplus if they had it. Mostly the answers amounted to shoring up individual survival: funding a retirement account, taking care of parents and elders, or paying off a mortgage. Were our healthcare not tied to employment, our housing not tied to banks and landlords, and our childcare not tied to a third of our monthly pay, what would we be able to imagine differently?
It shouldn’t be news that there’s no eight-step program to build a better possible world. By knitting together failure alongside hope for change, I mean instead simply to provoke the imaginary and inspire thinking along pathways that exist outside of the success ladders we’ve come to know. My hope is that these examples inspire us to notice the margins and edges and that these ideas implant a nagging feeling somewhere in the back of our consciousnesses that to succeed in our current economy may mean that we’ve failed at the collective one, and that loosens us up to accept and invite generative forms of failure.
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Because the grody carpets needed to be ripped up anyway, one of the first events in the new space was a night of pizza wrestling. Unfortunately, it then took many weeks to actually rip up the even more grody, now pizza-soaked, carpets. This is hearsay. I wasn’t there.
It’s now called, simply, The Jewel Box. Similar in ethos to Fox Market, owner Nathaniel Meiklejohn says: “I don’t want to go on record saying I want a place that’s welcoming to everyone. I want a space that’s more welcoming to marginalized people.”